Drill music in Philly: Rappers reimagine genre, without violence

Paper$, who successfully made it through the judging process, says he still uses drill as a genre of music, but is making it his own.

“Nowadays, I’m trying to change the narrative on drill music … I’m putting the knowledge into it. I’m going to change the narrative and not talk about guns and violence and stuff like that, but more about prosperity [and] making it to the top without having to be a product of my environment.”

AKG agrees, adding that parents are responsible for what their children listen to. “I went to the basketball court maybe two weeks ago, there [were] kids jumping around to drill music and they knew it word by word [and they were] little kids … we’re going to make music that’s going to help them and steer them in the right direction.”

Beyond performances, some Philadelphia artists, knowing they can draw attention, partner with community organizations to amplify resources. “Block by Block,” an event hosted by the City of Dreams Coalition in mid-August, brought performers and resources to the intersection of Broad Street and Erie Avenue.

Artist K. Walker said that drill music is a symptom of gun violence, not a cause.

“If anything is happening through drill music in Philadelphia, nine times out of 10, it was already like that. We’re talking about a city averaging 500 to 600 murders per year since the ‘90s,” Walker said. “So drill music didn’t do anything … I’d rather them go rap about it,” he said, “than be on the corner doing it because drill music — music, period, is keeping kids off the corner for a long amount of time … music is getting people off the street faster than college in Philly.”

Walker added that drill music, in his opinion, is targeted as a cause of gun violence because it’s easier to deal with than systemic issues like poverty.

“A drill beat is louder than the need to do a good cleanup in Frankfort and Northeast. A drill beat is louder than needing to go downtown and clean up some of the homeless people who are forced to commit crimes to eat. A drill beat is louder than a lot of stuff that you need to be paying attention to,” said Walker. “The music is influenced by the things they need to clean up first … What are we supposed to do? Just sit here and drown in it? How can you blame drill music but you don’t blame the city officials?”

While drill music hasn’t been used in many Philadelphia court cases, and some of the genre’s biggest stars have campaigned against the use of lyrics in trial, drill is still at the center of controversy. In Thomas’ case, even though the 2018 retrial began with the stipulation that no jurors would have heard “Ear Bleed,” he was convicted of murder again and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

During the final performance of “How Dope Are You?” Paper$ argued that the glorification of violence often heard in drill music is nothing to celebrate.

“I could talk about a gun. Yes, I’m gonna keep a gun on me, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to glorify the gun. Why glorify it? Why glorify what you have to protect yourself from a person that may be a killer?” said Paper$. “I lived that life, but I’m not going to sit up here and put it into rhymes. [There are] times I pause in freestyles and be like, ‘Oh no, I ain’t singing that.’ You have to be wise about the words that you’re putting out there.”

A quick search online for “Philadelphia,” “anti-violence,” and “music” yields dozens of results for artists, community groups, and funding for arts education. The Block by Block event by the City of Dreams Coalition boasted some 40 rappers, and “How Dope Are You?” another dozen. In October, Philadelphia artist ARSIN held the #PrayForPhillyChallenge to encourage young artists to rap about something positive over a beat he produced.

Collective responsibility and positivity were common themes among artists at both events.

“I don’t care how much music you put out [or] how phenomenal you might be or you might sound,” said Paper$. “At the end of the day, if you’re not pushing knowledge or gaining any type of perspective to make you a better person or make the world better, then you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons.”